National Security

North Korean Nuke Program Built With Earnings From Slave Labor

New report documents forced labor in state-run mines that provides Kim regime with foreign cash

Kim Jong Un
Kim Jong Un / AP

North Korea uses "forced and slave laborers" in order to fund state priorities, including the development of nuclear weapons and missiles, according to a new report on the labor practices in the isolated dictatorship.

The report, entitled Gulag, Inc., was unveiled by the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea (HRNK) at an event at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., last week. It offers a glimpse into the way Kim Jong Un’s regime exploits North Korean citizens in the lowest tiers of its social system for economic gain.

"Most of us cannot imagine a place where your life is pre-determined from the time you are born: what you eat, where you attend school, travel, and work—all forced onto you, regardless of your desires, dreams, talents, or merits," the report says.

"If you are born into the lowest rung of the loyalty-based social discrimination system (songbun), you will likely live a brutish, dangerous, and often short life, shrouded in the darkness of the country’s state-run mines. This has been the reality of North Korea under three generations of the Kim regime."

The report was written by Kim Kwang-Jin, a defector from North Korea and an expert on the regime’s secret and illegal international financial operations who is a fellow at HRNK.

Forced labor serves as the backbone of North Korea’s mining industry, which yields coal, copper, and other commodities that "earn hard foreign currency for the state," Kwang-Jin explains in the report.

The mining industry continues to play a central role in North Korea’s exports despite reductions in the price of commodities. In 2013, for example, coal and mineral resources accounted for half of the regime’s total exports. The chief buyer of North Korean mineral exports is China.

"In 2013, China accounted for 97% of North Korea’s exports of mining products in terms of revenue. Exports of coal and iron ore to China in the same year totaled $1.68 billion, or 44% of North Korea’s overall exports to all countries for that year," the report notes.

All facets of the mining industry are run by state entities.

The North Korean social system is comprised of three classes: the basic class, the complex class, and the hostile class. Members of the two lower rungs "are forcibly assigned to the most difficult and avoided occupations in North Korea, which include mines and farms." The occupations of those in the hostile class, the lowest class, are pre-determined by the occupations of the individual’s parents or grandparents.

North Korea’s political prison camps are also linked to mining activities, according to evidence presented in the report.

"These individuals, systematically marginalized and discriminated against, cannot enter the institutions of power, including the Party, government, or the military. They are placed at an extreme disadvantage in all walks of life, and their labor is exploited to maintain production and export the state’s underground resources," the report says. "The dark reality of this industry reveals a vast system of unlawful imprisonment, forced labor, and human rights violations."

The wealth generated from the mining industry is used by Kim Jong Un’s regime to "strengthen its own power," meaning that the state’s interests are funded by slave labor.

"The underground resources exported from North Korea are produced by forced labor and human rights violations committed by the state," the report explains. "The wealth that is generated from these exports is spent on state priorities: the privileged lifestyle of the Kim dynasty and the elite classes, the development of nuclear weapons and missiles, songun (‘Military First’) politics, giftpolitik, and the maintenance of the songbun system of social classification."

A resolution passed by the United Nations Security Council in March cracked down on North Korean exports by prohibiting Pyongyang from exporting coal, iron, iron ore, gold, and other minerals, with some exceptions. The new sanctions came in response the regime’s January nuclear test. Still, the resolution is not likely to be enough to curb exports to China, the report notes.

"Although the sanctions imposed by UN Security Council resolution 2270 were widely regarded to be unprecedented in strength, they do not yet appear to have had a significant impact on North Korea’s exports of underground resources to China, which continue under the guise of ‘livelihood purposes,’" the report states.

"There is an urgent need to strengthen controls on North Korea’s mining exports, not only to improve the effectiveness of sanctions aimed at altering Pyongyang’s stance on denuclearization, but also to protect the human rights of countless North Koreans who endure forced labor in mines across the country."

Kwang-Jin headlined the launch event for Gulag, Inc. on Thursday along with David Asher, who was a State Department official during the Bush administration; William Newcomb, a former U.S. government economist; and Roberta Cohen, an expert on human rights and humanitarian issues at the Brookings Institution.

Asher, who served as a senior adviser for East Asian and Pacific Affairs and coordinator of the North Korea Working Group at the State Department, emphasized the need to crack down on North Korea’s forced labor in order to minimize threats posed by Pyongyang to the homeland.

"These workers are being used as slaves or serfs in a way that is absolutely at the center of the North Korean regime’s finances and weapons of mass destruction program," stated Asher.

"North Korea’s ‘Gulag, inc.’ is supporting a system that at the end of the day is involved in threatening the entire stability of the world economy and civil society," Asher later said. "North Korea’s exploitation of its human people like cattle at the end of the day results in a very sophisticated ability to build nuclear weapons and proliferate them as well as missiles."